Lasagne Gardening

Putting the Garden to Bed, Lasagna Style!

By Faye

With shorter days, colder nights and the last glorious fall colours fluttering to the ground, my veggie beds are tucked in for their winter sleep. Most of us know about ‘lasagna gardening‘ (just Google it) for building new beds but I decided to use this method to give my hard-working soil an extra treat this year.

1. Lime and straw

After emptying out the remnants of summer bounty, and working around the areas still laden with carrots and beets, I limed the soil then topped the empty beds with a layer of straw.

2. Manure and leaves

My first ‘green’ layer was well-aged chicken manure from Firbank Farms on Island View Road, then for the ‘brown’ ingredient, I added a thick layer of precious leaves. Lasagna gardening focuses on alternating layers of ‘green’ (nitrogenous) with thicker layers of ‘brown’ (dried, carboniferous) amendments. 

On top of the leaves, I put a 2-3″ layer of my own freshly dug compost. Having been too busy to dig it last spring, I left it and the summer warmth produced my best compost ever! Yes, good black compost is considered ‘green’, as is manure.

3. Top with compost and leaves

With a final, generous frosting of more autumn leaves, my soil beds are now piled higher than the raised beds themselves, but the army of microorganismsearthworms and their friends working beneath the surface will have this digested and shrunk down by planting time in mid-spring. What isn’t broken down by then will provide extra humus and help keep the soil moist all summer.

4. Bed ready for its winter sleep

I anticipate much gratitude from my newly-restored soil in the form of bountiful crops next year.

*NOTE: If you didn’t get to do this yet and winter arrives, save those leaves and start layering in the spring! It’s never too late. If done in spring, consider adding some topsoil so you can just plant right into the layers.

Apple Cider With Cinnamon Sticks 300x200 1

Hot Spiced Cider Recipe

Russell Nursery’s Homemade Hot Spiced Cider


A flexible recipe that can be made for as few or as many servings as needed!


Mix together in a suitably sized pot:


2 parts apple juice to 1 part cranberry juice

Add a couple of cinnamon sticks

& a few cloves and allspice berries, either loose or wrapped in cheesecloth. 


Bring to a soft boil, turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of hours.


Best served warm with ginger snaps.


w 6 golden varietgated lir

Japan Through The Eyes Of A Canadian Gardener

Autumn in Japan may not have the caché of a springtime visit in cherry blossom time, but to a gardener it evokes every bit as much awe and delight.  And we have our own cherry blossom time right here in Victoria, don’t we?

Visiting family in Tokyo, I’ve had the pleasure of living the Japanese experience; the daily routine of walking everywhere, with the occasional train ride, subway crowds, or the ever-timely local bus.  These walks have allowed me to see close up, the small details of green spaces.

Wherever we go we find vignettes of beauty. The Japanese people seem to take any opportunity they can to create loveliness, whether with a small planting, or simply an artful arrangement of stones.

The little corners where sidewalk meets sidewalk speak to passersby “walk by this space, and enjoy”.

Small corner of two sidewalks

Tiny garden on a busy street corner

We are right across the street from Arisagawa Park, a green oasis of many acres that comprises bike trails, a small lake stocked with fish, the best playgrounds I’ve seen anywhere, and natural forests for exploration. As a gardener, my fascination lies in the flora, seeing details that never cease to please.  One of the delights of visiting the park is the array of sweet gestures of concern for all who walk here!

Warnings and gestures

Warnings and gestures

Harmful insects

The first thing to strike me was the respect for the aged here. Not only aged people, but aged trees! The careful support given to gnarly trunks is an art in itself.

Support for aged tree

Gentle support for branches

Not just a stake with a length of rubber hose to tie it to the tree, but a padded buffer between trunk and twine, to soften the contact. Respect, appreciation, and love for these elders of the land.

A grass-like plant that I saw everywhere is Liriope, either muscari or spicata, in all its forms: dark green, the golden variegated and the silver variegated.

Liriope ‘National Arboretum’

Golden variegated liriope

Liriope is frequently used in Japan not only as a superb ground cover, but as a buffer between shrubs and hard surface; a clipped hedge, then the liriope, then the sidewalk, the liriope being the softening touch between. Needing moisture and part shade, it’s a spreading grass-like perennial that does as well in our climate as it does in Japan.  Liriope ‘National Arboretum’ is used everywhere here as part of the small vignettes, a ground cover yet much more.  We sell this short, slowly spreading, curved, dark green grass in 4” pots, but I’ve never seen its beauty as I have here, and will be ordering more of it for the nursery in the spring.

General open nature of mature trees

During the recent inspiring talk by Louise Boutin at the nursery, she mentioned lifting and opening the limbs of trees and shrubs by selective pruning. Well, the Japanese have this down to a fine art; even large trees have been thinned this way, opening up the intriguing branches to light and view.
The use of bamboo is more than an art form here, it is an inspiration. Whether a bamboo grove, a bamboo forest, or a bamboo fence, bamboo is everywhere and it is a marvel.

Bamboo forest

Bamboo still growing is beautiful, but it continues its magic after being harvested and used as supports.

Maybe too much support here?

Whether it is thinned-out Nandina domestica planted and tied against an open bamboo fence, or wispy cedar hedging plants sparsely interwoven with the canes, bamboo provides the bones to support the green, providing a screen in even the narrowest of spaces.

Fences and trellises of bamboo are ubiquitous, and for some reason have captured my heart.

Bamboo fence enclosing

Note how evenly tied

The fascination with diverse styles and methods of tying these fences, trellises and supports led me on a search for traditional lashing, the heavy rough twine that is used for holding the bamboo canes together. This also led me to a book on the subject, and an obsession has taken root.  Walking for miles, wrong turns, (even Google maps can be wrong!) finally we found the sought-after Japanese garden center.  Traditional lashing was only part of my search; the garden center experience beckoned this gardener with promises of Japanese seeds, tools, and curiosity sated.

Keeping in mind the fact that most Tokyoites don’t have cars, nor yards, nor much space of their own, the garden center was not surprising in its tiny efficiency. It was  just a part of a large hardware store, on the second floor even, and very different from  Russell Nursery!

Garden center in Tokyo

Conifer section, note roses in background

I’m sure all of you have seen the traditional serene Japanese garden, so I’ll close with just a glimpse of the view outside my window in Tokyo, but I hope the small details described will give you the confidence to just try a few simple touches to bring the peace and beauty of the Japanese style to your own place of green.

Temple outside my window

Christmas ball in snow

Christmas For Gardeners

A few weeks ago, I received one of those forwarded messages, the sort of thing we all dread finding in our Inbox. If I ever get another one of those things that tells me how wonderful I am, how needed and how ‘special’ I am, I think I will gag.  And don’t ever think I’ll “forward it to ten women that I think are special” too!  (Sorry to any friends who have done this to me, but just tell me to my face that you love me, not in something you send to your entire mailing list.)

However, this one made me sit up and think, because first of all, it didn’t wax eloquent about my positive attributes.  It was about starting a new Christmas tradition that entailed giving the gift of either your own time, or that of a local merchant or service provider, bought and paid for with your own locally earned dollars.

It led me to think of ways we gardeners can give to each other, whether to fully grown tillers of the soil, or the little ones just cutting their shovel blades on their very first plot.

As a person who loves my garden but rarely has enough time to accomplish the magnificence that dwells only in my head, I know that I would love to receive a gift certificate for labour.  There are many young landscapers starting out who would appreciate the business as well, so a call to Glendale Gardens might lead to a match made in heaven; hire one of the graduates for a few hours to help your favourite gardener with Spring cleanup.

How about hiring the boy down the street to cut the lawn for your good friend who works all the time?

Be honest now, can you imagine a more thrilling gift than a truckload of really good soil, rock, or that delicious triple mix of soil/compost/manure? Be still my beating heart…

A photo of a vegetable garden, and a promise to “Help you plant your vegetables” perhaps with a gift certificate for the seeds would be a gift that keeps on giving, all year long.

If you can splurge on a special gift that really would make a lifelong difference to anyone who wants to grow vegetables, I can’t think of anything more wonderful than Linda Gilkeson’s class Year Around Harvest, at Glendale Gardens.  If this is a bit beyond your budget, then Linda’s book Backyard Bounty would be the next best thing, and it’s available at the nursery.

If Mom or Dad loves roses (or Japanese Maples, or whatever), how about a gift certificate (to Russell Nursery, of course) for one of the chosen favourites with the best part being that you will help plant the gift.

Are you good at photography? How about pictures of your loved one’s garden? One of my daughters-in-law took seasonal pictures of flowers in my garden one year and framed them into four separate collections, one for each season. It is still one of my most treasured possessions.

If the gardener on your gift list happens to be a wee one, perhaps starting them out with a selection of easy seeds, hand tools, garden gloves, and their very own little plot of garden space, would spark a life-long love that will never be forgotten.  You can’t imagine how often we hear gardeners of all ages talk about what their grandparents taught them early on in their gardening lives.  What one package of sunflower seeds can lead to…

Many little girls are enchanted with fairies. A “fairy garden” either in a container or planted in a secret corner of your yard, is pure magic. Wondrous things can be imagined with just the right tiny accessories, plants with “fairy” in their name, flowers that invite the fairies to alight. Create a special place for the two of you to make memories that will endure forever.

We all wish you a very happy Christmas; may you give and receive the warm gifts of time, growth, and good gardening…and not too many of those sappy emails!

linda yard mulch2 web fmt

Amending Your Soil For Winter

We are all used to a blanket making us cozy and warm in the cold days of winter, but feeding us too? Well that’s what winter mulch can do for your garden; nourish the soil and protect it from rain and freezing temperatures.

It may seem mysterious, but really all you need to do is provide lots of organic matter to feed the millions of microorganisms that will convert nutrients to usable food for the plants.  These little organisms will slow down for the winter, but by putting the mulch down in the fall, it’s already broken down by spring when the warmth wakes the little critters up and they can get to work right away. Usually we also have to correct the pH here, as our winter rains tend to make the soil more acid. With the exception of strawberries and potatoes, most veggies need a higher pH so the addition of dolomite lime in the fall is a good thing to do.  Of course the ericaceous plants (acid-loving) such as rhododendrons, camellias, heathers, pieris, and conifers are happier without the lime.

The easiest, cheapest, and most effective form of organic amendment is right there in your yard already; falling leaves need only be raked and layered in the beds; ideally, mow them on the lawn and dump onto the garden beds, both ornamental and veggie, but even just dumping them on in a 6” layer is fine, as long as they are nice and fluffy and not likely to pack down. Oak leaves are especially wonderful for the acid-lovers.  The practice in our culture of placing autumn leaves in a pile or plastic bag for the municipality to gather and sell back to us as compost is bizarre. Do you ever see forests needing fertilizing? Of course not, the leaves fall, they decompose, and return their nutrients to the soil, which feeds the trees and the cycle is repeated.  While you’re at it with the leaves, bag some up and save for spring and summer, when the “brown” part of composting is in short supply. You’ll be happy to have these crispy crunchies to add to your mostly-green compost, and the microorganisms in your soil will thank you.

By leaving the leaves in your garden beds, not only do you feed the soil and suppress weeds, you provide a haven for beneficial insects.  The lovely bumble bee nests in fallen leaf litter in garden beds.  One of the many pleasures of spring is seeing the groggy bumbles stumbling around when first awakening from their winter naps, going from crocus and heather to sarcococca, feasting on nectar and pollen

Leaf Mulch On Vegetable Beds

Here is a photo of Linda Gilkeson’s veggie garden, freshly topped with autumn leaves. As the queen of vegetable gardening on the coast, Linda offers her wisdom and practical experience in her book Backyard Bounty.  I really don’t think there is a better Christmas gift for anyone on your list who wants to grow food; talk about a gift that will keep on giving!

Another form of organic wealth I like to feed my garden is seaweed. As I live near several beaches, I am able to visit the local shoreline after a big November storm, and gather the seaweed that has washed up on the beach, detached from any living ocean plants. I don’t bother to rinse the seaweed as we have a lot of rain, nor do I even chop it up, I just pile it onto the garden beds to decompose, it seems to melt right into the soil, providing many important benefits; increased hardiness, resistance to disease, and better fruit production for many favourite crops. (Local biologists recommend rinsing the seaweed at the beach to make sure you are leaving all living creatures behind. If you are using a lot of seaweed it is probably worth freshwater rinsing, the salt in the seaweed will deter slugs but also the beneficial earthworms .) You will never find a more valuable resource for your garden! In the absence of a nearby beach, or if you aren’t comfortable hauling buckets and buckets of slimy kelp in your car, we do sell bags of kelp meal, as well as a powdered form of seaweed that can be diluted and makes an almost endless supply of seaweed elixir to foliar feed or root drench.

If you’ve been following my blogs at all, you will know that I’m a strong believer in the wonders of straw as mulch too. Straw improves the tilth of the soil, and as it breaks down, it provides carbon for the nitrogen-carbon ratio that we seek for our composts.  Its texture keeps the soil open, allowing the rains to drain through but not pummel the soil throughout winter.  Make sure it’s straw that you buy, not hay which is inclined to be full of weed seeds.

The ultimate treat for gardens is of course compost, but the recommendation is to leave the compost covered and in the bin for winter, staying relatively dry and warm.  Save it for spring mulching, preserving the nutrients that would be washed away by the winter rains.  The same is true for fertilizers; wait until spring, whether you choose organic blends or synthetic additives.

Such a combination will ensure a happy and well-fed soil, awaiting the warmth of spring. Bring on the seed catalogues!

lauries garden

Less Is More

The buzz these days in the garden world seems to be all about ‘low maintenance’.  It is a concept I fully embrace in many aspects of my life, including my garden. It was my governing mantra as I reworked my front yard last year.

It started with a wet basement and ended with the drain tiles being replaced and a revamping of my front yard next to the house. When all the plants were removed and the lawn was buried in cardboard and soil, I was determined to put things back differently. Because I was also creating beds where there once was lawn I had to be particularly diligent with my ‘less work’ theme. I enjoy my garden, but middle age has made me realize that I don’t want to spend all of my free time maintaining it.

This was especially important in my front yard where little time is spent. I needed to limit my plant palette to easy care, trouble-free shrubs with much less focus on perennials. And of course living in Victoria also means the plants needed to be deer resistant. I did not want to spend time spraying, stringing or dangling product in the dance of the deer. To me low maintenance meant a simpler multiple planting, less variety of plants, more subtle colour in foliage over flower, more shades of green and grey, more focus on texture, and overriding considerations  of mature size and drought capabilities. It was a very deliberate and trying exercise in restraint. My final composition included a few carefully chosen small trees, a limited assortment of small to medium-sized shrubs, with perennial accents of ornamental grasses, herbs and ferns. Instead of gravel pathways I chose easy care concrete stepping stones with amenable ground cover.

The ‘less work’ mantra also meant that I completed the front yard planting with a 2 inch layer of mulch to ease up on the weeding, watering and fertilizing. It has also come to mean choosing my battles in the plant world. I am learning to embrace the violet which was never planted but is proving impossible to eradicate. I am also getting used to the somewhat disheveled, less tidy look of my garden. I am reaching for that cup of tea despite the dandelions.

The ‘low maintenance’ mantra will mean different things to different gardeners. I am still figuring out where I will draw the line in terms of my garden work. Two books with plenty of good ideas for minimizing our time spent toiling away are Tracy Disabato-Aust’s 50 High-Impact, Low Care Garden Plants and Valerie Easton’s The New Low-Maintenance Garden.


compost tea operation

Some Compost Tea, A Bale Of Straw, And Thou

With profound apologies to Omar Khayyam; we’ve come a long way since the 11th Century.

Compost tea and straw are elixirs for the modern gardener.  Better than that “jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou”?  Uh, maybe not, but much appreciated by your happy plants.

Compost tea is just about the easiest thing to make; it can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it.  Sure, if you Google ‘compost tea’ you’ll find places to buy it, sources for expensive bubblers and aerators, and these are all wonderful no doubt.

Compost tea operation.

However, my version is just like the bag-in-a-cup way of making real tea; a shovelful of good compost in a 5 gallon bucket, fill with water (ideally rainwater, but second best is to allow the water to sit for a day or two to dissipate the chlorine, but I’ve never had the patience for that), and allow to steep for 3-5 days, stirring daily to incorporate oxygen into the brew. Any longer than that, without an aerator, there can be too many anaerobic organisms and a never-ending supply of mosquito larvae!
When ready to use, stir vigorously, muttering incantations to the moon of course, allow the solids to settle, and scoop. I keep a yogurt container handy, scoop some into my watering can, and fill the can with water.

Depending on what I’m watering, i.e. seedlings or my established perennials, I’ll dilute or not. Full strength is a real treat for shrubs and all other plants, but it can be diluted up to 1:5 ratio with water, and still be an energizing fix for the hungry plants.

To make the tea even more deluxe, you can add a few cups of alfalfa pellets, or a good slosh of liquid seaweed. The alfalfa adds nitrogen, and the seaweed contains about 60 micronutrients, beneficial fungal foods, and plant growth hormones.

Used as a foliar feed or soil drench, the tea feeds a very nutritious tonic to the plants, inoculates the soil with beneficial bacteria and fungi, and helps control plant diseases. Add the remaining sludge back to your compost to return an active community of microorganisms to the pile.  Recycling at its best.

Needless to say, there are hundreds of sources for more information, but I like this one:

He claims that there are enough aerobic bacteria and fungi in a good 5 gallon batch of compost tea to equal the benefit of 10 tons, or 40 cubic yards of good compost. Well, I can’t prove him right or wrong, but it sounds good to me.


Every Spring, I buy myself a bale of straw. The local supplier of animal feeds and farm supplies sells bales in two sizes, and I always get a good-sized bale as I find it has many uses in the garden.

In these days of water conservation, a mulch of straw in the vegetable beds keeps the soil nicely moist and warm, and as it breaks down it provides wonderful humus and porosity to the soil.  Mulches in general protect the soil from driving rain (or sprinklers), prevent a crusting-over in the sun, and keep it from blowing away in the wind. Straw is inexpensive, widely available, and will break down over the year. Some people prefer to buy it in the fall and open it to the rain, to start the breaking down process. Certainly when it’s nicely wet it is much easier to control when spreading. In fact, even if you buy it in the spring, wet it thoroughly to facilitate spreading; it’s not possible to control the dry stuff on a windy day!

Straw mulch for the ground and containers.

By the way, don’t buy hay instead of straw, it’s full of seeds.

Many avid vegetable growers use straw as a covering for pathways between rows, blocking the sun from the nasty weed seeds, and as part of a winter mulch program along with seaweed, organic fertilizers, and lime.

By putting a generous layer of straw around my strawberry plants, the slugs seem to be discouraged, and the berries remain clean, all the better to eat while standing in the garden.

Another wonderful use of straw is in the making of Lasagna Gardens; another topic for another day…

For now, I’m off to enjoy that jug of wine and loaf of bread………some good cheese……….strawberries and raspberries from my straw-mulched beds………..

backlit fern

Spring Haircuts for Evergreen Ferns

Every spring I look forward to the ritual of cutting back my evergreen ferns. Although it won’t harm them to leave them alone, by cutting off the old growth you make room for the fresh new fronds to show through.  As soon as the soil warms enough to start the new growth, you will notice small “knuckles” forming at the base of the existing fronds, at the crown of the plant. This is the precise moment to get secateurs or hedge trimmers in hand, and cut off all the old growth. It’s hard to cut off old fronds that still look good, but you will be happy you did.

Uncut Sword fern

Polystichum munitum, or Western Sword Fern, is a classic example. In this picture, you can see it without the haircut, showing the new fronds starting to unfurl amongst the old ones.

Cutting off the old stems after the new ones emerge is fraught with danger and requires a patient hand; the risk of severing the new fronds is high.  It’s a lot easier to do before the new growth comes in!

Partially Cut Fern

I photographed this one partially trimmed to show you the density of the new growth, with the lush old growth still standing.

In a large fern such as this one, the choice is a dense thicket of crowded fronds, or a fresh abundance of spring green.

I love the way the “knuckles” become furry “fingers” as they reach for the light.

While the Sword Fern is a natural for this treatment, don’t be afraid to do it to other ferns in your garden, they can all benefit by a close haircut each spring. My Alaska Fern (Polystichum setiferum) hadn’t been trimmed for a few years, so when I cut it back this year there was a lot of nasty brown litter crowding the crown.

Alaska Fern

I had to be quite ruthless, but I think the cleansing will do the plant good, and I’ll enjoy the greener vista along my pathway.

My Asplenium scolopendrium, or Hart’s Tongue Fern, is in a pot under the big oak tree, near many hostas, hellebores, and other shade plants. It too was starting to look leathery and tired.

Maintenance of perennials makes the difference between a garden that looks worn out and sad, or one that bursts with new vibrant growth. Trim back your ferns, and you too will enjoy the special beauty and majesty that this ancient plant brings to horticulture.

Backlit Fern


Oh My Aching Back!


Laurie may have chosen to ignore her snapweed aka pop weed aka Cardamine hirsuta, but I faced it head-on and spent 4 hours the other day pulling it out – and that was only the front garden.  Where does it come from?? I’m sure that it wasn’t there last year!  But I’m equally sure that if I hadn’t done something right away that there would be even more next year.  If only the deer would eat that instead of the tulips!  Even if there is no time for anything else, I try to at least pull out the ones that are flowering – five minutes now will save hours later. Next the back garden. Groan.



What’s A Weed?

By Lynne

I recently returned from a trip to visit my family in Australia and, although the people are the primary reason for going, there’s the secondary benefit of seeing all the different flora.

So much that is quite unrecognizable, particularly in the way of Australian native plants, but mixed in with the familiar.  A cool summer in Adelaide meant that the roses were glorious (some years they struggle in the +40ºC temperatures).

It seems to be human nature to want something which is different.  Here we struggle to grow Agapanthus in a sunny and protected location; there the massive blue and white heads make informal hedges and clumps everywhere.  In

Agapanthus growing with abandon in New Zealand

fact they grow so well that they’ve happily seeded themselves in ditches and along roadsides in many parts of Australia and New Zealand and become noxious weeds.  In a country where the ivy geraniums don’t die over winter but instead take on shrub-like proportions, there are ideal germinating conditions.   The stately stands of pampas grass in gardens did so well and spread far beyond gardens that a massive campaign of eradication ensued.  (Reminds one of the lonely Scottish settler who brought those first broom seeds to the Island.)

Pampus Grass

Years ago I remember my uncle proudly showing me his patch of Ranunculus.  This was not the large-blooming colourful varieties we might try, but the simple buttercup which reminded him of the countryside of his youth in England, and it was having a real struggle in the heat of an Australian summer!